City Threatens Christian Group With Fines, Prosecution for Giving the Homeless Muffins, Coffee
The Department of Justice is now intervening on behalf of the Orange County, California, group's right to distribute food at its resource center in Santa Ana.
The U.S. Department of Justice is intervening on behalf of a Christian charitable group in Orange County that's been threatened with fines and even criminal penalties for using their property to hand out snacks and coffee to the homeless.
On Wednesday, the DOJ filed a "statement of interest" in a lawsuit filed by Micah's Way against the city of Santa Ana, California, arguing that the city's crackdown on their snack service violates federal laws protecting religious activity from discriminatory local land use regulations.
"The free exercise of religion is a bedrock principle of our nation," said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California in a press release. "Religious groups should be entitled to exercise their religion by providing charitable services based in their religious beliefs."
Since 2005, Micah's Way has operated a resource center where volunteers help connect their poor and homeless clients with birth certificates, ID cards, clothing, bus passes, and other services, according to a January complaint filed by the group. They also offer the people who come to the resource center muffins, pastries, and fruit, plus hot coffee.
Micah's Way claims their charitable activities continued without issue for over 15 years. Things changed in 2020 when the group moved its operations outside as a pandemic precaution. That same year, a needle exchange opened up two doors down.
The lawsuit claims that the influx of people using the needle exchange led to a number of "troublesome incidents," including trespassing, loitering, and drug use, and that Micah's Way was partially blamed due to "guilt by association." The incidents sparked complaints from neighbors, including Santa Ana's then-Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who lived near the resource center, according to the complaint.
In November 2021, Micah's Way received an administrative citation from Santa Ana for not having a valid certificate of occupancy. The citation came despite the group having been a city-licensed nonprofit that often worked with city officials.
The citation demanded that the group obtain a certificate of occupancy at their resource center or else cease all operations there. When the group applied for the needed certificate, they were denied twice in January 2022 and June 2022 on the grounds that it was engaged in food distribution, which wasn't allowed by their property's "professional district" zoning.
A June letter from the city said that if Micah's Way continued operating its resource center without a certificate of occupancy, the city would take "all appropriate action" against the group, including "administrative fines, criminal prosecution and/or civil remedies such as injunctions and penalties."
Communications from the city to Micah's Way obtained by Voice of OC say that the group's feeding of the homeless had generated complaints from nearby residents about transients lingering in their neighborhood, discarding food waste in public, and scaring residents.
Micah's Way contends that the vast majority of neighbor complaints were the result of the needle exchange and that these complaints dropped off precipitously after the exchange moved in February 2022.
In an attempt to address any remaining concerns, the group also moved its operations back inside its building in the summer of 2022. It also agreed to only hand out food in connection with its other services.
This didn't placate the city.
In January 2023, the city refused to issue the group a certificate of occupancy unless Micah's Way also agreed to a number of nonnegotiable conditions, including that the group stop handing out any food at all at its resource center, stop food deliveries from the resource center, stop its outreach work to the homeless, and not advertise in public or private the availability of food and drink at its resource center.
In response, Micah's Way sued Santa Ana in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California later that month. Its lawsuit alleges that the city is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The 2000 law bars local governments from enforcing land use regulations that "impose a substantial burden on religious exercise" without a compelling justification.
Micah's Way argues in its lawsuit that feeding the homeless is a core part of its religious mission with little impact on its neighbors. The city's demand that they stop distributing food imposes a substantial burden on their religious exercise without furthering any real government interest.
"[Micah's Way] has now been confronted with the binary choice between the following two unacceptable alternatives," reads the complaint. "Obtaining a [certificate of occupancy] for [its] Resource Center by agreeing to abandon their religious beliefs in providing food and drink to the needy or…remaining true to their religious beliefs and then facing potential fines and prosecution."
In March, Santa Ana filed a motion to dismiss Micah's Way lawsuit. The motion argues that the group's provision of snacks is a very small part of its overall activities. Therefore, the city's demand that the snack service stop isn't a serious enough burden to trigger RLUIPA.
"Simply providing small snack food items such as a 'cup of coffee and a muffin' to individuals that obtain other services at the Property is a minor activity," reads the city's motion to dismiss. "Any curtailment or limitation on such a minor activity is a mere inconvenience and cannot possibly be a 'substantial burden.'"
Micah's Way is hardly the only religious group to run afoul of local zoning codes.
The charitable missions of churches and nonprofits often don't neatly fit within zoning codes that sort all human activity into neat little boxes. Reason has covered a number of cases of churches in residential zones being told they can't operate a "commercial" soup kitchen and churches in commercial zones being told they can't operate a "residential" shelter.
The idea behind RLIUPA, which passed with wide bipartisan support in Congress, was to give religious groups added federal protection from overly restrictive zoning codes.
In 2018, the DOJ under President Donald Trump launched its Place to Worship Initiative to educate local governments about RLUIPA's legal protections and make it easier for religious organizations to file complaints of RLUIPA violations to the DOJ.
The department's "statement of interest" unequivocally rejects Santa Ana's argument that it's within the bounds of RLUIPA to demand Micah's Way stop handing out snacks.
The city's threats of "monetary and criminal consequences is not a 'mere inconvenience,'" it reads. "Rather, the City has inflicted 'substantial pressure' to compel [Micah's Way] to modify its behavior by ceasing to perform 'act[s] of charity in providing . . . food and beverage items to the poor and homeless persons.'"
It asks that the city's motion to dismiss the case be denied.